Pain, loss, and the miserably high price of seizing Scottish Labour’s poison chalice

Not many party leaders launch their political career on a sofa in front of daytime TV but that is where it all began for Kezia Dugdale.

The Aberdeen University graduate was 23, unemployed and bingeing on trashy talk shows in her Edinburgh flat when her roommate came out with a curious suggestion — Dugdale should go into politics.

As the Lothian MSP once recalled: ‘We couldn’t get jobs. We spent most of the day in our pyjamas, talking about the world, watching Trisha, and applying for jobs. Living the dream. Michelle was a member of the Labour Party and she told me, “The things that you like, the things that make you angry, are the things that the Labour Party is all about. You should join.”’

And so she joined and quickly rose through the ranks, taking on the leadership in 2015 in the wake of the General Election wipeout. It was the job no one else wanted. The prospects looked bleak. The chances of power scarcely above nil. Scottish Labour was a plummeting anvil and Miss Dugdale grabbed it with both hands. With a tenacity that outstripped her age and experience, she threw herself into the role with gusto.

Now, after two years, she’s out — and out with intrigue, a late-night announcement sending the politicians’ and punditocracy’s mobile phones into a buzzing frenzy. It was a rare secret at Holyrood in that no one knew about it. Some staff were given no more than 24 hours’ notice, some were given less. Others were informed by text message. Just one day after her 36th birthday and only two months since she led her party to a mini revival in the General Election, Kezia Dugdale’s leadership came to an abrupt end.

Despite her opposition to Jeremy Corbyn, she has not been deposed in a dramatic coup. No Stalin loyalists came at her with an ice pick. True, low-level but persistent sniping from internal party critics did not make her life easy but personal factors loomed large in her decision. The past year has been one of pain and loss for Miss Dugdale. Her nine-year relationship with fiancée Louise Riddell broke down last Christmas. Two months later, her friend Gordon Aikman lost his battle against Motor Neurone Disease. The death hit her hard, as it did so many who knew the inspirational campaigner, but she knew him better than most and watching someone close to her slowly tormented by a cruel condition was sobering.

It is to Mr Aikman that she refers in her resignation letter, writing: ‘Earlier this year I lost a dear friend who taught me a lot about how to live. His terminal illness forced him to identify what he really wanted from life, how to make the most of it and how to make a difference. He taught me how precious and short life was and never to waste a moment.’

Personal trials, her beloved Labour Party’s capture by the extreme Left, the daily venom to which the SNP’s cybernats subjected her — all eventually took their toll on this young idealist. Cynics will say that anyone who pursues a political career needs a thicker hide, that parliament is no place for those who can’t set their emotions aside. Maybe she should have switched off Trisha and looked for a different career.

But that is exactly the kind of politics that Miss Dugdale rejected as out-dated and a hindrance to repairing the public’s faith in their leaders. She understood that most people are not political animals and the goings on at Holyrood and Westminster rarely intrude on their everyday lives. For her part, she had little to do with student politics during her university days — she ran the student union and says her only ‘policy’ at that time was lower beer prices.

It wasn’t that she was apolitical — an early memory involves her 11-year-old self staying up to watch the 1992 General Election results and colouring in a home-made electoral map — but rather that the brand of politics on offer was too remote and aloof. To Miss Dugdale, politics is about feelings — anger at the closure of a local hospital, hope for a raft of new jobs — and how these emotions could be put to good use improving people’s lives and their services. As she once put it to me: ‘It sounds weak to talk about emotion, as if to argue with emotion is weaker than arguing with rationality. It’s not. It’s more powerful and more politicians should do it.’

That principle guided Miss Dugdale through her time as aide to Lord Foulkes, political blogger, and, after her surprise election in 2011, MSP. It was this emotional outlook on politics that allowed her to connect with audiences during one of the final TV debates before the independence referendum, credited by observers with establishing her as a potential leader. When Jim Murphy lost the 2015 election, and his own seat, his deputy stepped up and took on what was the most daunting challenge in British politics.

Miss Dugdale has conducted herself with calm and dignity amid the petty humiliations of Scottish politics. Under her tenure, Labour was squeezed into third place at Holyrood by the polarisation of nationalism and unionism. She did all she could to prevent it but once it had happened, she refused to let it define her, ramping up rather than dialling down her weekly broadsides against Nicola Sturgeon at First Minister’s Questions. Week after week, the First Minister expended all her shouty indignation on Ruth Davidson and habitually underestimated her Labour counterpart — to her frequent detriment.

The SNP sought to embarrass her by leaking a youthful application to work for one of its MSPs. Miss Sturgeon, in a measure of the woman, even revealed the damaging contents of a private conversation in a live TV election debate. The Scottish Labour leader, Sturgeon claimed, had confided the morning after the EU referendum that her party was now less hostile to a second independence referendum. The pre-election revelation took Miss Dugdale’s legs out from under her and shifted yet more pro-Union Labour voters into the arms of Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives.

That was especially unjust because Kezia Dugdale did more than anyone else to affirm Labour’s commitment to the Union. After a few ambiguous remarks that cast doubt on her stance, she realised the only answer was honesty. No, she wasn’t a Unionist in the same way Tories were; to her the United Kingdom wasn’t about history but solidarity, a country where the strength and prosperity that comes from London could be used to make life better for people across the nation.

While others on the Left took the easy road of regurgitating Nationalist talking points, she challenged the idea that Scotland retreating into its own borders would be a progressive move. Better to stay and fight for fairness in four countries than run away and hope it could be achieved in one. After all, politics wasn’t about flags and power trips, it was about providing children with the best education, helping their parents buy a house and start a business, and looking after the sick, the elderly and the vulnerable.

Perhaps she was too idealistic and perhaps she tried to pass off naiveté as idealism. Sometimes she gave off an air of Nicola Murray, the hapless Labour leader in The Thick of It: mousy, well-meaning but a bit lost. She was friendly and some mistook this for weakness. She was open to internal dissent and this actually was weakness. Her personal tribulations might have been more manageable had she stamped her authority on the party early on. As it is, she leaves a legacy of internal reform but little of note in policy terms. Her departure, many allies and opponents agree, was unnecessary or at least precipitous.

In her personal life, though, things are starting to look up. Last month, she revealed her relationship with Jenny Gilruth, an SNP MSP tipped for a future position in Nicola Sturgeon’s ministry. Anticipating questions about the long-term prospects for a romance across political dividing lines, the couple said: ‘While we are both politicians, we are also human beings — in a new relationship, which we cherish.’ It was further confirmation that Miss Dugdale viewed politics as her job, not her life.

Those within the Holyrood bubble view this as a sort of treason. While wishing her all the best in public, some politicians are privately bewildered, even scornful, of her decision. Those who live and breathe politics might move on when the time is right but they couldn’t imagine walking away so soon and with their party experiencing a unforeseen fillip in its fortunes. Most outwith the Scottish Parliament, that postmodern prison for small minds and small ambitions, there will likely be more sympathy for the Labour leader’s choice. ‘It’s just politics’ may offend insiders but it is a sensible creed that allows the rest of us to live fulfilled lives.

That is the lesson of Kezia Dugdale: That normal people are complex and unless we accept this normal people won’t go into politics. Of course it’s a tough business. As Miss Dugdale reflected in an interview with the BBC: ‘It should be tough. It is important decisions you are taking all of the time.’ But should it be so harsh, so unremittingly nasty, so brutalising of all who try to take part? It is notable that fellow Lothian MSP Neil Findlay has ruled himself out of the forthcoming leadership contest. He is Jeremy Corbyn’s man in Scotland and would likely win but he stood in a previous leadership poll and is thought not to have enjoyed the experience.

When a party leader stands down as Miss Dugdale has, we might chalk it up purely to personal circumstances or shrug that she was simply not tough enough. When her rival and obvious successor doesn’t want the job, it’s clear something is wrong either with the job or with the way we do politics today.

As Scottish Labour searches for its seventh leader in ten years, there will be plenty of debates about the direction of the party. There should also be one about the direction of Scottish politics. Do we really want young, bright, passionate women like Kezia Dugdale to be bowing out from leadership aged 36? Do we want no one to go into politics who isn’t willing to sacrifice their relationships and personal happiness for a political party?

As the late makar Edwin Morgan observed of the pell-mell cluster of buildings sitting squat at the foot of the Royal Mile: ‘What do the people want of the place? They want it to be filled with thinking persons as open and adventurous as its architecture.’ Instead we have an assemblage of the bland and the fanatic, the absurdly self-righteous and the creepily ambitious.

Kezia Dugdale now returns to the backbenches, there to regain that precious treasure, a normal life. Who amongst us could blame her? The fact that so many politicians would confirms that those who represent us are nothing like us.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Have your say on the issues raised here by emailing, remembering to reference the column. Contact Stephen at

Feature image © The Climate Coalition (UK) by Creative Commons 2.0.

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2 thoughts on “Pain, loss, and the miserably high price of seizing Scottish Labour’s poison chalice

  1. Whilst I accept the points Stephen makes about the need for politicians to be permitted a private life, I cannot understand how Kezia could possibly be true to her job and true to the new personal relationship, which she entered with one of the people who she was charged, as Labour leader, with removing from office as she sought to remove the SNP administration.
    She could be true to her job or her partner but not both, therefore no option but to resign her job or leave her relationship.


  2. Most reflective and fair piece I have read about Ms Dugdale. That this young woman was the best and strongest of the lot speaks volumes.


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